Masters of the future or heirs of the past?

Mining, history and the right to know

IN MAY 2020, the international mining giant Rio Tinto made a calculated and informed decision to drill 382 blast holes in an area of its Brockman 4 mining lease that encompassed the ancient rock shelter formations at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia’s Pilbara region. In a matter of minutes, eight million tonnes of ore were ripped from the earth, and with them, 46,000 years of cultural heritage destroyed.

The Puutu Kunti Kurrama Pinikura people, who are the traditional owners of that land, lost their material connection to sacred sites of ceremonial, clan and family life, the basis for their political and social organisation. The Australian people lost a significant chunk of their national estate. As Marcia Langton lamented, not only had the PKKP people been robbed of their cultural inheritance, but the world lost out too, because the Juukan caves ‘held significant evidence for the further understanding of human history’.[i]

For this hefty price we all paid, Rio Tinto lawfully gained access to $134 million dollars of high-­grade iron ore.

The Human Rights Law Centre said that the global Corporate Human Rights Benchmark, based in the Netherlands, should strip Rio Tinto of its status as a global human rights leader.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who three years earlier had lovingly cradled a lump of coal in his hands in parliament, said nothing.

Conventional accounts of mining’s role in Australia’s history represent the exploration, extraction and exploitation of mineral resources as a story of unchecked progress and national wish fulfilment: the sometimes-­shimmering, ever-­solid bedrock of a lucky country. It’s a convenient narrative for a settler society. Historian John Reynolds expressed this extractive ethos in his 1974 book Men and Mines: A History of Australian Mining, 1788–1971: ‘For almost 200 years mining activity in Australia has opened a path of progress and economic buoyancy for the country’s development.’[ii] Reynolds took his lead from Geoffrey Blainey’s seminal 1963 text, The Rush That Never Ended, a book that has been republished five times, most recently in 2003, when its blurb read: ‘a saga of tough men, iron-­nerved gamblers, violence, death and glittering riches set against the backdrop of some of the most awful country on earth.’ Romance! Adventure! A young country digging up old dirt to pave a future of its own making, a track through the wilderness that ends, conveniently, at a bottomless pot of gold.

Might there be another way to tell the historical mining story, other than as a celebratory nationalist narrative that is so clearly at odds with present community standards of corporate accountability? There is no doubt that mining has and does, in some essential way, define the life of the Australian nation. Its GDP. Its public policy. Its philosophy. But in seeking to understand how people have interacted with the land, the state and each other around mining sites, can we begin to see that nation as a less clear-­cut and more contested entity, one where Australian’s values, aspirations, characteristics and notions of development clash as much as they cohere? Upend as well as underpin? Blast and bludgeon as well as bulge the coffers?

Such critical recasting is important, for mining has unequivocally transformed both ecologies and economies in the settler world, as well as determining the power dynamics between and within communities. Blainey was right: the rush that started in Australia with gold prospecting in the 1850s – and found a new horizon for development in northern Australia a century later – has yet to end. So, in the devastating wake of Juukan, it is timely to ask: can the extractive frontier be just as important as the military frontline in defining the story of our nation?

What happens when we look at the ‘broken’ in Broken Hill?


ONE DAY, ALL Australian primary school students might learn about the Juukan Gorge the way generations have studied the nineteenth-­century Victorian goldrush, with its own explosive crescendo, the Eureka Stockade. To recap: gold was ‘discovered’ in Ballarat in 1851, when the population of Victoria was about 25,000. By 1861, after a tidal wave of immigration from across the globe, that number had risen to over 600,000. Escaping old-­world hierarchies, inequality and poverty, polyglot schemers and dreamers dug their way towards a new life of freedom and independence. When the British rights and liberties of these cosmopolitan miners were threatened by an authoritarian administration and unjust taxation, the disenfranchised diggers rebelled, leading to a short battle and a long legacy: Eureka became known as ‘the birthplace of Australian democracy’. Recent research, including my own, has demonstrated that women as well as men participated in this mining boom and its economic and political, if not mythological, inheritance [iii]

Similarly little recognised is the fact that the central Victorian goldrush occurred on the lands of the Wathawurrung people, who had made the fertile hunting grounds of the Ballarat basin their ancestral home for tens of thousands of years. Gold seekers inundated country that had first been invaded by squatters and sheep in the 1830s. It is estimated that prior to European contact there were up to 3,240 members of the twenty-­five Wathawurrung language groups. By 1861, 255 Aboriginals remained in the Ballarat region. Some European observers, like C Rudston Read, readily acknowledged that ‘the white man has stepped in and taken possession of his land, nolens volens’. One contemporary response was pity: Samuel Heape called the Wathawurrung ‘poor helpless things’.[iv]

But other goldseekers were aware, as historian Fred Cahir has shown in his landmark book Black Gold, of the extensive quarrying, and subsequent commercial transactions, being carried out by Victoria’s Indigenous inhabitants prior to and after British colonisation. Indeed, resource extraction was practised by Indigenous people throughout the continent. Batjala-­Quandamooka-­Kalkadoon historian Kal Ellwood has traced the principal mining trade routes of pre-­colonial Australia, proving that Aboriginals used sophisticated underground and pit mining techniques, as well as post-­extraction treatment processes, as part of complex commercial relationships. Indigenous Australia had its own stories to explain how minerals were created and where they were deposited. The bronzewing pigeon Marnbi, for example, seeded gold at Broken Hill, copper at Cloncurry, sandstone at Mt Isa and opals at Coober Pedy.[v]

‘Aboriginal people,’ writes Cahir, ‘far from being repelled, were often attracted to the goldfields, motivated by factors such as new wealth, new sights, new sounds and new alliances.’[vi] They co-­habited on the diggings with the newcomers, taking advantage of trading opportunities while maintaining traditional rituals and practices on the outskirts of Ballarat. As Ellwood argues about communities in other parts of Australia, Aboriginals ‘adapted readily to post-­contact mining because of their long tradition of mining activities’.[vii] The Europeans were novel. The activity they undertook was not.

Traditional knowledge was one thing. Land ownership was another. ‘Aboriginal people across Victorian goldfields,’ reveals Cahir, ‘continued to declare their title and insist upon formal acknowledgement of what was rightfully theirs.’[viii] The Indigenous people of central Victoria might have been dispossessed, but they were not diffident. They installed toll booths on bridges, requested bounties on vessels crossing rivers, took food and goods from domiciles, and demanded financial restitution for revenue extracted from the land, all as a matter of cultural and legal entitlement stemming from prior ownership: ‘indefeasible title from time immemorial,’ as Wathawurrung elder ‘King Jerry’ put it to the Geelong Council.[ix] (Common law title, as we might call it post-­Mabo.)

Such insistence, however, fell on deaf ears. In June 1860, by which time the tent city of Ballarat had been replaced by houses, churches and schools, the Victorian government established a system of six reserves to control and administer the affairs of Aboriginal people. Historian Richard Broome quotes Protector William Thomas protesting about the removal of the Kulin people from a site where they had successfully established a farming settlement: ‘This, the fate of Aboriginal industry, is enough to deter Aborigines from ever having confidence in promises held out to them.’[x] Ultimately, the full dispossession of the Wathawurrung was not due to the unwillingness or inability of Indigenous people to engage in strategies for economic development, but to a failure of government policy to safeguard their connection with land.

On the extractive frontier of the 1850s and ’60s, there was no consultation with traditional owners about the occupation of their lands when mineral wealth was discovered buried beneath them. Whether the Wathawurrung and other local clans were pitied, patronised or simply plundered, the notion of co-­operation and co-­existence was anathema to the settler project. Indigenous people were not a human resource; they were simply a commodity to be exploited, like the earth itself.


FOR MOST AUSTRALIANS, the phrase ‘the Peninsula campaign’ conjures the distant shores of Gallipoli, where ANZACs fought against an alien enemy, apparently for our freedom.

But another battle waged much closer to home – indeed at home – was also referred to as ‘the Peninsula campaign’.[xi] This contest for territorial control occurred on the Gove Peninsula, on the north-­east tip of Arnhem Land. The contest was over access to land that contained some of the richest bauxite reserves in the world. It played out over a decade from the late 1950s. The critical year of the campaign was 1963. The Minister for Territories in the Menzies government, Paul Hasluck, commanded the forces of expansion and development of the Top End; the Yolngu people of the Yirrkala region were the defenders of land that had been legally reserved for them in 1931, and to which they claimed ownership in perpetuity. The Yirrkala Bark Petitions (August 1963) and the subsequent Select Committee on Grievances of Yirrkala Aborigines (October 1963) were key battles in the offensive. Depending on your perspective, the creation of the mining town of Nhulunbuy, built in 1972, was either the spoils of victory or the price of defeat in the Peninsula campaign.

The military metaphors are mine, not germane to the mining vernacular. I’ve deliberately deployed them here to highlight how much of our national historical consciousness is built around war stories. We understand the language of conflict in binary, adversarial terms: enemy and ally; victor and vanquished.

In reality, the story of how resource extraction led to a four-­cornered contest over the right to define and control the narrative of nation-­building in north-­east Arnhem Land is more complex – and compelling.


THE ARNHEM LAND Aboriginal Reserve, some 80,000 square miles of flat ironstone and low-­lying stringybark forest, was established in 1931 with the intention of ‘insulating’ the region’s Aboriginal population from the rest of the Northern Territory. Arnhem Land became ‘exclusively Aboriginal’; [xii] only missionaries, Northern Territory welfare officers and Yolngu were allowed in. Anyone else was trespassing. The reserve, conceived by the Commonwealth Government, the Northern Territory Administration and various Church missionary societies, was both a form of inverted incarceration (keeping Yolngu out of Darwin) and a protective exclusion zone to prevent ‘alien’ infiltration.[xiii] Assuming the land itself to be remote and undesirable, the federal government saw the reserve system as the best way to protect its ‘wards’ and put a final stop to the area’s relatively recent history of cross­cultural violence.

The colonial frontier came late to the Top End, a century on from the massacres, dispersals and dispossession on the east coast of Australia. Incursions of pastoralists, looking to expand northern holdings in the late nineteenth century, were brief, if bloody. The ‘Black War’ in Arnhem Land was won by the blacks. Fierce and co-ordinated Yolngu resistance, coinciding with drought, saw pastoral leases issued in the 1880s abandoned by the 1890s. [xiv] A second pastoral push in the first decade of the twentieth century was similarly repelled.

But the unsuccessful infiltration of the pastoralists was not the first time that strangers had come to Arnhem Land. The Yolngu people are considered exceptional because they are the first Australian Aboriginals to have had contact with foreign visitors.[xv] For at least 500 years, Yolngu engaged in seasonal trading visits with the Macassans, Indonesian seafarers who came to exploit the trepang beds of the north-­east coast in exchange for tobacco, pottery, knives and cloth. Though Macassans could stay for months at a time, building wells and processing the trepang, there was never any prospect that they would settle permanently, nor take without giving – something to which the ‘white cow’ people seemed to feel entitled. By the time the European visitors arrived overland, Yolngu had experienced centuries of adaptation to new material culture and notions of labour and trade for goods and services. In other words, they understood and engaged in economic and political relationships, both inter-tribally and internationally.

The next strangers to arrive were the missionaries who established bases at Roper River in 1908, Goulburn Island in 1916 and Milingimbi Island in 1923. Following violent encounters with Japanese pearlers and Darwin-­based police, a Methodist mission was established at Yirrkala in 1935 to provide sanctuary for the more than dozen clans of Yolngu people of this Miwatj region.[xvi] Yirrkala, and surrounding Melville Bay, encompassed the traditional lands of the Gumatj and Rirritjingu clans. Yolngu, having long understood the positive use to which outsiders could be put, accepted the newcomers. Missionaries provided food, education and protection (from both aggressive intruders and feuding clans) in exchange for worship and work. The Methodists also accepted most cultural beliefs, permitted language and rituals, employed a philosophy of bilateral learning and, in many cases, developed genuine friendships and important alliances.[xvii] As historian Laura Rademaker has pointed out, missionaries’ proselytising intentions didn’t ‘neutralise’ Indigenous people’s ability to use missions for their own purposes, with Yolngu reaping both material and spiritual benefits from the encounter.[xviii] Missions could be both sites of inequality and colonisation and places where Aboriginal people felt a sense of belonging and ownership.

So, where does this frontier story, increasingly seen by non-­Indigenous historians as one of Yolngu agency and adaptation, intersect with the orthodox story of mining?

The first known geological reconnaissance at Gove occurred in 1952, fewer than two decades after the Yirrkala Mission was established, when Paul Hasluck announced a change of policy, opening the Northern Territory’s Aboriginal reserves to mineral prospecting. The time had come, he argued, to ‘extract the latent mineral wealth of the Territory’. Unlike the Northern Territory mission enterprise, which was conceived and portrayed as a vehicle for harm minimisation, the resources industry was always positioned – by the government – as an inescapable threat.

And the threat was not an empty one.

In 1958, the Commonwealth Aluminium Corporation (Comalco) was issued Special Mining Lease No. 1 to prospect twenty-­one square metres of land on Melville Bay, abutting the Yirrkala Mission. According to Hasluck, times had changed since the 1930s, when the system of Aboriginal land reserves had been established ‘liberally but rather carelessly’. Now, incentivised by the discovery that a blanket of bauxite lined the Gove Peninsula, Hasluck underscored ‘the necessity for developing our national resources’. [xix] Not natural, national. No less than the future of the nation was at stake.

By the wet season of 1962, when the Reverend Edgar Wells took over as superintendent of the Yirrkala Mission, it had become commonplace to see prospectors ‘walk about the country, boring holes, marking off areas, and finally erecting buildings’ without, according to Wells, ‘any attempt at explanation’.[xx] The miners, observed Wells, roamed around ‘with a renewed assurance…in complete optimism…masters of the future’.[xxi]

On 18 February 1963, the federal government ratified an agreement with Nabalco, a joint Swiss–Australian venture, to mine for bauxite. This meeting took place at the Methodist Overseas Mission’s (MOM) headquarters in Sydney, attended by mining representatives but no Yolngu. The first that the inhabitants of Yirrkala – Yolgnu or European – knew of the changes in policy was when white marker pegs suddenly appeared on the edge of the mission’s peanut paddock one Saturday afternoon in May. Ron Croxford, who was a lay missionary and principal of the Yirrkala Mission School in 1963, told me that he and his wife, Margaret, their small children and several Yolngu families were on their way back from a picnic at Melville Bay when, from the tray of the old green mission truck on which the merry band was huddled, Ron spotted the markers. They had not been there when the group headed out on their daytrip that morning. Ron informed Wells of these odd spikes. ‘Edgar had no knowledge of the reason for the white marker pegs being there,’ the now ninety-­two-­year-­old Ron tells me. ‘Edgar certainly was disturbed by my report but did not react. He told me to not mention what I had seen, to keep the information to myself.’[xxii] Wells didn’t want to alarm the 500 local residents of the mission.

A week later, Ron recounts, his Yolngu teaching assistant, Daymbalipu, ‘approached me in a deeply disturbed state and wanted to share with me’. Daymbalipu had been to Rocky Bay, a beach in Yirrkala, ‘and had noted tide marker buoys pegged there’. Again, Ron ‘went to the Mission House and informed Edgar of the information that Daymbalipu had given me. I emphasised the distress that Daymbalipu had shown.’ Wells soon discovered that, with the connivance of the MOM head office in Sydney, the government had excised 140 square miles from the Arnhem Land Aboriginal Reserve, legally paving the way for mining operations. Aboriginal land had, with the sweep of a pen, become Crown land.

As Hasluck told the House of Representatives later that year, ‘safeguarding’ the interests of the Territory’s Aboriginals was no longer a matter of protection from what lay outside the borders of the reserve, but of reaping the rewards of what lay beneath the earth. Mining would enable them ‘to take the fullest advantage of the opportunities opened to them by the development’.[xxiii] He promised that royalties would be payable to the Aboriginal Trust Fund, though at a discounted rate, and that this money would be used to ensure Aboriginal welfare in the Territory generally, and at Yirrkala specifically. The positive outlook squared with the new government policy of assimilation, the assumption of which was that, in Hasluck’s words, ‘in the course of time, it is expected that all persons of aboriginal [sic] blood or mixed blood in Australia will live as do white Australians.’[xxiv] Live as white Australians, but with a notable exception: Aboriginal Australians were still technically wards of the state, not citizens of the nation. [xxv] In keeping with being treated as constitutional ingenues, the Yolngu of Yirrkala were neither asked about the mining on their land, nor informed of the decision to take the land from them.

Edgar Wells later noted that the ‘safeguards’ clause of the mining agreement was included for the approval of the Australian public ‘down south’, not the people on the ground.[xxvi] The traditional owners were ‘not considered entitled’ to express an opinion ‘when alien operators were walking across and in the view of the Aborigines, trespassing on Aboriginal land’. [xxvii] Like children, Yolngu would be told what was in their best interests.


GALARRWUY YUNUPINGU WAS a fifteen-­year-­old student of Ron Croxford’s in Yirrkala in 1963. His father, Mungurrawuy, leader of the Gumatj clan, had once taken Ron to sit beneath the sacred banyan tree. Crouched low, running sand between his fingers, Mungurrawuy spoke only three words to Ron: ngarraku birrumbirr dhuwala. My spirit is here.

The eyewitness accounts of Croxford and Wells attest to what later commentators would point out: Yolngu were ‘largely ignorant of events surrounding the resumption of reserve land’. [xxviii] But Galarrwuy, the current leader of the Gumatj clan, suggests that situational ignorance is not the same as political witlessness or historical amnesia. In his 2016 Monthly essay ‘Rom Watangu’, which translates as ‘the land is our backbone’, Galarrwuy writes of the frontier violence that unified his father and other senior men from all clans ‘against the cattle prospectors and land thieves, who hunted and killed Yolngu women and children’. ‘These events and what lies behind them are burned in our minds,’ Galarrwuy assures us. ‘They are never forgotten.’[xxix] Yolngu might not have been consulted about the changes that were about to sweep over their lives in 1963, but they saw the lines in the sand, and they knew what came next.

Edgar Wells, who stepped up as an outspoken defender of the Yirrkala people against both the government and his Church elders, maintained that Yolngu might have considered a ‘transfer of leases’ if they were consulted as ‘equal partners in negotiations’. However, no attempts were ever made to ‘discover what the local Aboriginal reaction to the loss of totemic-­site-­bearing land and adjacent hunting areas would actually be’.[xxx] Wells believed that had discussions about mining rights started with Yolngu in 1957, when Nabalco prospectors first started sniffing around Yirrkala, by 1963 ‘quite amiable relationships of shared responsibility’ towards the land would have been achievable. Political diplomacy was just as much a traditional Yolngu skill as spear-­making.

Indeed, in May 1963, Rirritjingu elder Mawalan Marika put aside tribal rivalries to join with Mungurrawuy and write to Hasluck. They requested forty houses ‘so we can exchange to make us level between you and we natives’.[xxxi] It was the lack of consultation that was the primary insult, not the idea that they might be asked to share their land. To the Yolngu mind, they were not only custodians of the land – caretakers – but also owners, with the capacity to cede territory. The work of Nancy Williams, an anthropologist with an expertise in Yolngu land tenure systems, demonstrates that for the people of Yirrkala, ‘rights of ownership include those of vesting subsidiary rights in others [but] the granting of subsidiary rights in land and natural resources almost always involves negotiation.’[xxxii] Williams also shows that rights and obligations of ownership always have both a sacred and practical dimension: ‘The Yolngu sanction those rights and duties in a religious idiom, while carefully calculating their short-­term and long-­term effects in economic terms.’ In other words, when Hasluck unilaterally excised reserved land, he effectively stole land from people who understood both the spiritual and commercial value of their assets. ‘We are hurt,’ wrote twenty-­seven-­year-­old Gumatj man Djalalingba Yunupingu in a letter to Labor MP Gordon Bryant, ‘that the Government told us nothing of this before it took place… We believe that our old age occupancy of this land gives us rights which should not be brushed aside.’[xxxiii]

Notice of the excision of the Arnhem Land Reserve was published in the Government Gazette in May 1963. Over the next two months, there was a flurry of correspondence between Yirrkala, Darwin, Canberra and Sydney. Federal Labor MP Kim Beazley Sr, along with Gordon Bryant, made the long trek to Yirrkala in July to ascertain the level of distress. Standing in the newly opened Methodist Church, Beazley contemplated the extraordinary artworks that flanked the altar: large boards painted by Yolngu elders of each clan and moiety, including Mungurrawuy. Edgar Wells’ wife, Ann, who interviewed each of the artists as they painted, recognised that these panels were a ‘statement of land claims’, delineating language borders, natural features, sacred sites and ‘the disputes that inevitably arise over boundaries’.[xxxiv]

On viewing the panels, Beazley suggested that the Yolngu should present a petition to the parliament in their own vernacular. Before leaving Yirrkala, he furnished the wording of the preamble required of any petition to the House. Yolngu did the rest.

On 14 August, Beazley presented the House of Representatives with what have become known as the Bark Petitions: two versions of the text, one in English and one in Yolngu Matha, pasted onto bark and framed with traditional paintings. There were eight points, but this is the crux: a protest against ‘decisions taken without them and against them’ that were ‘never explained to them beforehand, and were kept secret from them’, as well as a plea to ‘hear the views of the people of Yirrkala before permitting excision of this land’. The twelve signatories, including two women, representing six clans, ‘humbly prayed’ that ‘no arrangements be entered into with any company’ that had the capacity to ‘destroy the livelihood and independence of the Yirrkala people’. Nowhere do the petitions suggest that Yolngu are opposed to mining per se. What they requested was a voice.

Yolngu anticipated that the miners, like the Macassans and missionaries before them, would be able to adopt a similarly accommodating stance to Yolngu prior occupation. They expected the government and Nabalco to ‘accept the value of the Yolngu evidence’, as anthropologist Howard Morphy puts it.[xxxv] For the Bark Petitions were not only a symbol of Yolngu culture; they were also a title deed, proof of prior ownership. [xxxvi] By ‘Aboriginalising’ the European ceremonial act of petitioning, the Bark Petitions were a political means of ‘asserting Aboriginal identity and culture to outsiders as well as within the community’. The petitions demonstrated not only tribal traditions, but also colonial literacy.

Procedurally, the Bark Petitions had an immediate effect. Though Hasluck rejected them on the grounds that they didn’t represent the true wishes of the community (only a small group of young rabble-­rousers), the Select Committee on Grievances of Yirrkala Aborigines was empowered – the first time in Australia’s history that a petition had directly led to a parliamentary enquiry. Just as significantly, the publicity garnered resulted in, as Wells put it, ‘a rising public awareness of the Aboriginal challenge to the status quo in Aboriginal affairs’. If Hasluck, MOM higher-­ups and the Nabalco execs had counted on ‘northern development’ proceeding without scrutiny due to the ‘awfulness’ of the land and passivity of the people, they had strategically misjudged the extent of both Yolngu resistance and the Methodist missionaries’ dedication to the wellbeing of their flock.

The committee members took evidence in Yirrkala in October 1963. Yolngu men and women were called as witnesses, through Yolngu and white interpreters, as well as mission staff and representatives of the Gove Mining Corporation. Yinitjuwa, a twenty-­five-­year-­old woman of the Dhalwangu clan, put her case succinctly, in English:

I think we like this place so much indeed because all the children growing well… We want mining people to come here only for work. We want that. If they come here and they will work where the green lines are if they want to live at Melville Bay. They will stay just little way down only for work.[xxxvii]

Nyabilinu, the twenty-­six-­year-­old daughter of Dhalwangu elder Nanyin, also expressed this willingness to accommodate to altered realities: ‘We want all our country, because this place here in Yirrkala will be God’s place – Christian place with name of the Lord.’

The Select Committee concluded that the Bark Petitions were ‘an appeal to the House of Representatives for protection’.[xxxviii] It made eleven recommendations pertaining, in essence, to how best to integrate the Yolngu into the inevitable establishment of a large mining town on the Gove Peninsula, while preserving sacred sites.

In 1963, the average Aboriginal life expectancy was forty-­two years. In 1968, the federal government signed an agreement with Nabalco for a forty-­two-­year lease to mine and process bauxite in Gove, conditional upon the construction of an alumina refinery and a township able to accommodate 4,000 mining workers, administrators, service providers and their families. To Edgar Wells, the injustice of ‘giving away of ancestral territorial privilege of children’s children’ was simply ‘beyond comprehension’.

Wells was sacked as superintendent on 11 November 1963.

The mining lease for Juukan Gorge was granted in 1964.


IN FEBRUARY 2020, I sat with Galarrwuy Yunupingu at his kitchen table in Gunyangara – the Gumatj homeland on Melville Bay, fifteen kilometres from Nhulunbuy, now framed by the rusting carcass of the alumina refinery, mothballed by Rio Tinto in 2013 – and read him the list of recommendations from the Select Committee. How many of these things happened, I asked him? He paused. For a long time. Then he answered: bäyaŋu. None.

‘They tricked us. They never gave us anything they promised. I’m afraid I have to come to this conclusion. They asked us but they didn’t listen.’

Looking at the foundational moments of Ballarat and Nhulunbuy helps to elucidate patterns and themes that should be central to further exploration of how mining has defined the life of our nation. That is, the contest over who has the right to lay claim to the extractive frontier, but more, what that entitlement confers in relation to other aspects of political, economic and cultural sovereignty. As Galarrwuy has said elsewhere, land rights are one thing, but ownership means more than a moral prerogative. ‘We would like to turn the land into money,’ Galarrwuy told a somewhat perplexed progressive audience at the 2013 Garma Festival. ‘Aborigines have land rights but are still the poorest people on earth.’

‘How to bring independence through land ownership,’ he asked. ‘That is the inside question.’[xxxix]

Ultimately, the Peninsula campaign was not only about the market value of the mineral resources themselves, but the moral, legal and civic status conferred on those who would call themselves miners. Those who would bring the future along with their bores and excavators. Those who could drive the nation and the economy forward.

Why does being a ‘digger’ endow some citizens with mythical powers to evade ethical scrutiny? Can we ever afford First Nations peoples with the status of First Diggers? Can colonialism afford to share the spoils of resourcefulness?

In her University of Melbourne Narrm Oration of 2015, ‘From Hunting to Contracting’, Marcia Langton outlined the history of Aboriginal Australians’ economic exclusion from colonial times to the twenty-­first century. Mining, she argued, offered First Nations peoples ‘a new paradigm devoted to development’. The Indigenous supply chain in iron ore in Western Australia had created $2 billion in five years, Langton averred, adding that Indigenous employees made up 12 per cent of Rio Tinto and Fortescue Metals’ workforces and that Carey Mining became the first Aboriginal-­owned resources company in 1995. To Langton, such examples of Indigenous wealth creation demonstrate that Indigenous engagement with the private sector economy is the ‘best way to close the gap’. (Indeed, the Gumatj Corporation launched its own 100 per cent Yolngu-­owned mining training facility and bauxite operations in 2017.)

These insights might well be accurate, but where mining is concerned, it is also true to say that economic development is not a ‘new paradigm’ that Indigenous Australians have latterly come to accept as part of the logic of late capitalism or ‘postcolonialism’. Rather, an economic stake in the land is something that has been perennially contemplated and contested in territories that, sooner or later, have come to hold commercial importance to white Australia. Participating in, and finding the economic benefits of, mining has been part of the strategy of responding to the realpolitik of the resources industry. It is not a new adaptation. What has changed, perhaps, is that mining companies have recognised the ‘social capital’ of collaborative working relationships with Aboriginal ‘stakeholders’. Whether this new alliance proves to be a reliable means of ‘livelihood and independence’ for Aboriginal communities remains to be seen.

I suspect I know what the late Reverend Edgar Wells would say. Reflecting two decades later on the events of 1963, Wells concluded that ‘the history of mining in the colonial empire leads me to believe that under no circumstances can the mining industry be trusted to secure any but its own interests.’ [xl]

Where mining is concerned, it just might be possible that looking at sites of conflict will help lead us to a more just, more reconciled Australia. That focusing on what we have long known is broken will help us mend a fractured polity and heal a ravaged earth. That human resources and mineral resources might work together to strengthen, rather than make a mockery of, our democratic values and institutions.

Juukan Gorge represents the pinnacle of the colonial mining project. It fulfils the Four-­F rating that is at the heart of Australia’s relationship to land: Find it. Fuck it. Flog it. Forget it. Let’s hope that Juukan stands as the most broken, defective, shattered and superseded point of the hill.

Galarrwuy Yunupingu has put this idea another way: ‘Too much of the past is for nothing.’ [xli]




[i] Marcia Langton, The Destruction of the Juukan Gorge Caves, The Saturday Paper, 19-25 September 2020

[ii] Reynolds

[iii] Clare Wright, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, Text, 2013. Dorothy Wickham, Women of the Diggings, Ballarat Heritage Services, 2009.

[iv] Clare Wright, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, Text 2013, 26.

[v] Galiina (Kal) Ellwood, paper at Faith on the Goldfields symposium, La Trobe University, Bendigo, 18 February 2016, author notes., accessed 30 September 2020.

[vi] Fred Cahir, Black Gold: Aboriginal People on the Goldfields of Victoria, 1850-1870, ANU E Press, 2012, 11.

[vii] Galiina (Kal) Ellwood, “Aboriginal Prospectors and miners of tropical Queensland from pre-contact times to ca. 1950”, in Journal of Australasian Mining History, Vol 12, Oct 2014, 61.

[viii] Cahir, 88

[ix] Cahir 88

[x] Richard Broome, Aboriginal Australians: A history since 1788, Allen & Unwin, 5th ed 2019, 82

[xi] Edgar Wells, Reward and Punishment in Arnhem Land 1962-1963, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1982, 32.

[xii] Wells 32

[xiii] Mickey Dewar, The ‘Black War’ in Arnhem Land: Missionaries and the Yolngu 1908-1940, ANU North Australian Research Unit, Darwin, 1992, 1.

[xiv] Richard Trudgen, Why Warriors Lie Down and Die, Aboriginal Resource and Development Services Inc, Darwin, 2000, 20.

[xv] Dewar 5

[xvi] Miwatj means ‘east’ and infers ‘east of Milingimbi’. The Maccassans also had a name for this area: Marege. The word Gove was not employed until 1944, when the military airbase on the peninsula was named after WW2 casualty, William Gove. See Melanie Wilkinson, Dr R Marika And Nancy M Williams, ‘This Place Already Has a Name’ in Aboriginal Placenames: Naming And Re-Naming The Australian Landscape, Edited by Harold Koch and Luise Hercus, ANU E Press and Aboriginal History Incorporated, Aboriginal History Monograph 19

[xvii] The principal exception was the ‘promise system’ underpinning gerontocratic polygamy, which saw young girls married off to old men, sometimes from birth. Unlike other hunting, religious and cultural practices such as ritual circumcision and scarification, child marriage and polygamy was considered by missionaries to be, at best, the cause of much inter- and intra-clan feuding and at worst, immoral. See Beth Graham, Dear Family: Letters from Arnhem Land 1962-1966, Historical Society of the Northern Territory, 2015, 13; Ann E. Wells, Milingimbi: Ten Years in the Crocodile Island of Arnhem Land, Angus and Robertson, 1963, 135.

[xviii] Laura Rademaker, “We Want A Good Mission Not Rubish Please’: Aboriginal Petitions and Mission Nostalgia”, Aboriginal History, Vol 40, 2016, 123. Historian Gwenda Baker, who lived in Arnhem Land as a missionary wife in the 1960s-70s, similarly portrays mission times as a joint enterprise between indigenous people and missionaries, with Yolngu writing themselves into the stories of missions’ foundation and success. According to Baker, Yolngu position themselves as the progenitors of missions, having permitted the church people to come and stay.[xviii]See Gwenda Baker, “Indigenous Workers of Methodist Missions in Arnhem Land: A Skilled Labour Force Lost”, 135.

[xix] NAA A1734, NT 1971/48

[xx] Wells 19

[xxi] Wells 36

[xxii] Author interview with Ron Croxford, Berwick, Victoria, xx June 2020. Transcript, and written notes emailed to author by Croxford.

[xxiii] Commonwealth, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 12 September 1963.

[xxiv] Paul Hasluck, Commonwealth, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 18 October 1951; Paul Hasluck, Native welfare in Australia: Speeches and addresses by the Hon. Paul Hasluck, Paterson Brokensha, Perth, 1953. The policy of assimilation was officially adopted in 1961.

[xxv] The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1962 technically gave the vote in Commonwealth elections to all Aborigines. However, it was not compulsory for Aboriginal people to register. The 1967 referendum that led to Aborigines being counted in the Census, did not, as often presumed, ‘guarantee Aboriginal voting rights, confer citizenship rights or constitutional recognition’.

[xxvi] Wells, 64

[xxvii] Wells 16

[xxviii] David Cousins and John Nieuwenhuysen, “Bauxite Mining and Processing at Gove Peninsula” in Cousins and Nieuwenhuysen (eds), Aboriginals and the Mining Industry, Allen and Unwin, 1984, 52.

[xxix] Galarrwuy Yunupingu, “Rom Watangu” in The Monthly July 2016, 20.

[xxx] Wells, 23.

[xxxi] Letter reproduced in Wells, 70.

[xxxii] Nancy M. Williams, The Yolngu and their Land: A System of Land Tenure and the Fight for its Recognition, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1986, 231.

[xxxiii] Letter signed by 12 Yolngu elders, reproduced in Wells 106.

[xxxiv] Wells 61. See also Anne E. Wells, This is Their Dreaming: Legends of the Panels of Aboriginal Art in the Yirrkala Church, UQP, 1971.

[xxxv] Howard Morphy, “Now You Understand: An Analysis of the Way Yolngu Have Used Sacred Knowledge to Retain Their Autonomy” in Nicholas Peterson and Marcia Langton (eds), Aborigines, Land and Land Rights, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1983,

[xxxvi] Morphy. See also Peter Botsman, “Little Cracks of Their Own Mountain Ranges”: The Bark Petition, Church Panels and the Gove Land Rights Case, 2013,, 6.

[xxxvii] Report from the Select Committee on the Grievances of Yirrkala Aborigines, Minutes of Proceedings

[xxxviii] Select Committee Report para 76

[xxxix] Galarrwuy Yunupingu, Garma Festival Key Forum, 10 August 2013. Author notes and

[xl] Wells, 77.

[xli] Galarrwuy Yunupingu, Truth, Tradition and Tomorrow, Black Inc., 2015, 14.

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